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Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Mountain Cheeses

Wengern Alp cheese dairy cowkeeper milking cow Bernese Oberland Switzerland e1383773182237 Mountain Cheeses

What makes a cheese a “mountain cheese,” other than that it comes from a mountain?

It was fascinating to discover that mountain cheeses are more aromatically complex than low-land cheeses. Upon reflection, it does make sense. Dairy animals grazing on upper elevations would have a greater diversity of plant species than their cousins by the sea. This wider mix of pasturage leads to greater nutritive values as well as more complex aromas.

Another reason why most mountain cheeses are more complex than those from the lower elevations is that historically, the mountain cheeses were created in larger formats so that they could age longer to help sustain its makers and their families throughout the winter months when other sources of nutrition might be a little scant. The larger sizes had a practical function as well. It is easier to transport one larger wheel of cheese than many smaller ones, especially up and down mountainsides. The low-land cheeses are mostly made for quick consumption, so these cheeses may not acquire the depth of flavors that the more aged mountain cheeses may exhibit. One notable exception to this is an aged Dutch Gouda; those can age out to six years, developing greater complexity throughout their ripening.

Dairies in upper elevations take advantage of other qualities of their terroir. The water is usually cleaner up in the hills than down in the valleys, after the water picks up impurities on its descent. The air is also usually much cleaner in the hills than down in the valleys and near waterways where our own species congregates. The lowland settlements have left their imprint on the land, not only the human impact but also that of the animals themselves, farming, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. Moving up the hillsides you have less residue from all this.

Some lowland pastures feature only a couple of different plant species to enjoy, whereas the higher pastures can contain dozens of species. The greater the diversity in the pasturage, the more complex the milk will be, as well as the resulting cheese. Some of the greatest regions for dairying in Europe include the alps of France, Switzerland and Italy; the Pyrénées of France and south of the border into Spain, and westward to Asturias; the higher elevations of the Rouergue, Franche-Comté, the Auvergne, Alsace, and Bavaria, to name a few. Here in the United States we have the hills of Vermont, Virginia, Oregon and Colorado, among others.

There is a greater proportion of raw milk cheeses produced in the upper elevations than there is in the lowlands. This can be partly attributed to the larger formats of mountain cheeses — those that can age out longer and thus easily satisfy the minimum aging requirements of sixty days, a minimum that has taken hold in other countries besides the United States.

I should not have to go into why the raw milk cheeses have greater complexity, on average, than the compromised milk varieties. Yet if anyone needs more clarification on that I will be happy to hold forth.

Head for the hills! I recently did. I spent last weekend in the high altitudes of the fifth Colorado Cheese Festival, this year in Longmont.

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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Monday, November 4th, 2013

Colorado Cheese Festival

max w goats e1383596155889 Colorado Cheese Festival

The appetite for cheese in Colorado appears to be rising faster than ever. Little surprise then that artisan cheese making is enjoying an uptick to satisfy that growing demand. Artisanal cheese production has been in existence for decades here but now the industry is booming. Craft beers are a big thing in Colorado too, which helps to grow the cheese appreciation.

The fifth annual Colorado Cheese Festival was held in Longmont this year, about an hour north of Denver. The festival enjoyed record-breaking attendance even though it was not in Denver itself. Several Denver denizens made the drive up, but there were other participants from all over the state as well as a number from out of state.

John Scaggs of Haystack Creamery brought four of his goats to the festival this year, two Nubians and two La Manchas, beautiful and gregarious animals. They stayed out in the parking lot munching on hay and taking in all the attention. When a small plane flew overhead all four of them looked up to see what it was. Curious, too. They held their gaze on the plane until it was out of sight.

Inside the convention center hundreds of cheese lovers were milling about, visiting cheese makers’ kiosks and attending sessions. I was asked to conduct a pairing session on cheese and beer. Turned out to be a big hit. Along with the Oskar Blues beers a local gin and coffee liqueur were thrown into the mix from Spirit Hound. My word of caution to the assembly was to know one’s capacity.

It appeared that everyone in attendance was being careful though. No one falling down. If there was anyone who might have fallen down it would have to be the festival’s organizer, Jackie Rebideau. Jackie had been up most of the night before putting the final touches on the event. She met us a few years ago when she attended one of our Master Series. She has gone on to make quite a cheese career for herself, along with hosting the Colorado Cheese Festival she also hosts a radio program, A Fermented Affair, and she just rolled out her first food truck in Denver, Mobile Meltz.

The festival will be back in Longmont again next year and I look forward to being a part of it again, helping Jackie spread the curd.

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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Friday, November 1st, 2013

Calcium Discussions

800px Coulommiers lait cru e1383328676847 Calcium Discussions

It should be no surprise that the National Dairy Council would tout the calcium contents and other benefits in dairy. At the same time we might expect the council would be very selective about which sources it references: the randomized clinical trials, the observational studies, the animal and in vitro studies, the research reviews, and the studies of children and adolescents. Yet it is clear that the studies cited come from a diverse mix of credible researchers, and with no conflicts of interest in sight. It is gratifying to read through the works that the council has summarized.

We would expect that an entity such as WebMD would have no vested interest in recommending dairy so reading through some of their reports might make for a little less pleasurable read. Yet in a summary of various studies on calcium intake and body fat the evidence suggests a strong inverse correlation, i.e. the high-calcium diet can reduce body fat.

According to Michael Zemel, PhD, Director of the Nutrition Institute, studies have shown that the more calcium there is in a fat cell, the more fat it will burn. In their research various trials were conducted, some with calcium supplements and others with dairy. According to Dr. Zemel, “The magnitude of the findings was shocking.” Body fat storage was markedly reduced by all high-calcium diets…however calcium from dairy products produced the best results.

My favorite line from the WebMD article was this one: Too many dieters tend to immediately jettison dairy foods from their diet, because they’re just sure they’re going to make them fat. In fact, they’re shooting themselves in the foot, because they subject themselves to more empty-calorie sources.

This goes to the point: cheese is a “near-complete” food.

One of least favorite lines immediately follows: They would be better off if they would substitute high-fat dairy products with low-fat fairy.

This is a point with which I disagree, even without my own PhD to back me up.

Later in the same article, Pamela Meyers, PhD, a clinical nutritionist and assistant professor at Kennesaw State University states: “Also, there are people who are lactose intolerant who can’t consume dairy products. That’s why we need to look at other food sources…using calcium supplements, it’s important to choose those with added vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium, which help the body to better absorb calcium…”

A couple points here: Dr. Meyers, like so many other health professionals, seems not to know that cheese is lactose-reduced; up to 90% of lactose is eliminated in cheese making, and in most aged cheeses that reduction is even greater. One reason why the dairy products were more effective than supplements in reducing body fat storage is because dairy already contains the vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, as well as many other components which work synergistically to enhance the calcium absorption and overall well-being.

You may be familiar with the little graph in DK Publishing’s French Cheese that compares some of the nutritive values in an egg with those in different types of cheeses. The most dramatic difference in relative values is the calcium amounts. Nearly twenty times the calcium is offered in a cooked pressed cow milk cheese than is offered in an egg of equivalent weight.

The best source of bio-available calcium is cheese, especially those that are crafted from uncompromised milk (not pasteurized) for they have their full complement of vitamin D, zinc, and other nutrients.

- Max McCalman

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Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Ewe’s Milk Cheeses: Why We Love Them

sheep Ewe’s Milk Cheeses:  Why We Love Them

We do not usually call them “ewe’s milk cheeses” because of the way that sounds. “You’s” is heard around these parts a little too often. Calling them “ewe milk cheeses” does not sound much better. Calling them “sheep milk cheeses” is commonly accepted, as is “goat milk cheeses.” Neither the sheep nor the goat (the guys) produce the milk but the female names, ewes and does, are both problematic. Think of “does milk cheeses.”

How would you read that?

So much for “you’s milk cheese.”

I have seen many people completely enthralled by sheep milk cheeses. People seem to love them, or most do. There are only a handful of people who cannot tolerate sheep cheeses, including, surprisingly, a judge in a recent national cheese competition. For her it had to be cow and cow only.

Cheese suffers in so many ways.

The different species’ milks are a little less distinctive. Yet when you convert those milks into cheese, their different aromas, flavors and textures begin to diverge.

If there were only one adjective that defines goat cheeses from sheep or cow it would be “chalky.” If there were only one for cow cheeses it would be “buttery.” For sheep cheeses I would say “olive.” Maybe not an adjective but it conveys a distinction. Not that each of those milks does not at times have the other qualities – these are only the main descriptors.

Everything may be better with a little butter on it, but chalk? This could be one of the challenges goat cheese face with some people. Chalk is not so easy to swallow. Olive oil may be the easiest to appreciate. That olive oil note comes partly from the higher butterfats in sheep milk. The butterfat contents can be nearly twice as high as those in goat or cow. Some Spanish sheep milk cheese labels promote the cheeses underneath as “Extra Graso,” as in “extra greasy.” Yum!

No wonder we love them.

Sheep milk also contains more protein, another source of some of the wonderful aromas (wonderful for most of us) that sheep milk cheeses can offer.

When the milk is converted into cheeses and the cheeses are allowed to age, the relative protein and fat contents can be more closely lined up. The water content in cow milk averages about 87% of total weight, similar in goat, while sheep milk typically averages around 80%. Simply stated, sheep milk has more solids.

While this does not fully explain why we love sheep milk cheeses, all those butterfats and proteins do play a big role in the way sheep milk cheeses taste and smell, as well as in how they feel. During the fermentation processes of cheese making the proteins and fats break down into distinct flavors and more volatile aromatics. The lively aromas that arise from sheep milk cheeses are appealing to most people. The extra fat is appealing, though many people consider this to be an indulgence.

I would argue that this extra fat is not at all an indulgence but a wholesome attribute.

The fat works well with many wines too. I have found fewer wine “challengers” from among different sheep milk cheeses than I have for goat or cow. This is a broad generalization but considering how the acids in wines, beers or hard ciders work with fats, it should be little surprise that sheep milk cheeses enjoy so many tremendous synergies with those fermented beverages. Looking at three recent cheese and wine score sheets, the sheep milk cheeses all paired well with each of the wines. This is not to say that there can’t be outstanding matches with cow or goat, or with water buffalo cheeses.

Plus, those extra solids in sheep milk indicate higher overall nutritive values, including those derived from those wholesome butterfats. I firmly believe that our bodies know a good food when we eat it, which is one reason why we keep going back for more cheese, and why sheep cheeses in particular are often chosen to be favorites from within a mix.

Some cheese experts insist on calling them “ewe’s milk cheeses” but wouldn’t this have read a little silly if “ewe” was substituted for “sheep” all the way through?

If you was…?

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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Friday, October 18th, 2013

How It All Began…

Max Cheese Cart How It All Began...

Terrance Brennan opened Picholine restaurant in October of 1993, one block east of Lincoln Center. At the time there was a dearth of fine restaurants in the neighborhood: some nice ones here and there but few that were truly exceptional. Terrance honed his culinary skills in southern Europe where cheese is a part of everyday life and “celebrated” as a stand-alone course: the cheese plate. He believed that a superior cheese course should be offered here in New York City as good as the ones he experienced while a young chef in Europe. Terrance wanted to replicate that cheese course experience at Picholine but not until he was assured that the restaurant would survive its first critical year in existence – the one in which nine out of ten restaurants usually close.

Fortunately Terrance is a great chef with a palate that can detect the one missing grain of salt in a Paella or discern the potential of the addition of lemon thyme in a sauce. It was also the “theatre” that attracted his attention to the cheese course. The days of tableside Crêpes Suzettes and Bananas Flambées had long passed and tableside carving of meats or filleting of fish was becoming a little worn out too. A grand presentation of cheeses had enjoyed modest success in New York, and what tableside presentations there were did not qualify as especially “grand.” We rolled out our chariot des fromages with a selection of fourteen cheeses on day one. Within a few weeks that number had nearly doubled.

I was able to hold down both jobs at the start: Fromager and Maître d’Hotel. The cheese program was a near-overnight success however so I was not able to give either of those jobs the full attention required. Naturally, I gave up the Hotel and kept the fromage. It was something new; I had loved cheese all my life anyway, and the Maître d’Hotel job (though well-paying) was far less challenging. That challenge is what caused the selection to grow quickly, and also what ensured the program’s ultimate success.

Well-traveled guests would come in and ask for other cheeses, or they might come in the very next night and say something like: “That selection you had last night was magnificent; what do you have this evening?” or “Do you have Stilton, my favorite?” So it was customer demand that grew the selection. As Terrance would expect with every other menu item, I was entrusted with knowing each of the cheeses. With the many gourmands that Picholine attracted, it behooved me to become as expert as possible, as quickly as possible. Thus began my cheese education.

Within a few months we had guests coming in for the cheese course having read about it in a European newspaper. The food media in New York was enthralled. Terrance is a great chef, no doubt, but there were already more than a handful around town yet none of them was taking the cheese course that seriously. Picholine became a destination for cheese. The New York Times came back in to review the restaurant within a year after the launch of the cheese program and gave the restaurant three stars, highlighting the cheese course in the review. Other restaurants got on the cheese bandwagon eventually, today, the cheese course can be found in most fine dining establishments throughout North America.

As the cheese trolley began to fill up with more and more exquisite cheeses, Terrance decided to install a cheese “cave” based on the expert guidance we received regarding cheese storage. A small walk-in closet was retrofitted into a cheese cave – the first of its kind in a North American restaurant. The installation of the cheese cave was a second “first” for Picholine. The restaurant could claim the first full-time Fromager in the United States, and the first cheese “cave.”

The cave’s tile walls were easy to clean and they helped maintain the proper temperature and humidity levels. This was a single-unit cave set to 50º F and 85% relative humidity, hence similar conditions to what one might find in an actual cave, ideal for storing most cheese types. We did have some concerns about cross-contamination: what if the blue crept into non-blue cheeses?

Fortunately this was not a problem whatsoever; the cheeses moved through this cave at a brisk pace. As the number of cheeses on the trolley increased, so did the excitement, and the check averages in the restaurant increased dramatically. Part of the increase was the cheese but a larger part of it could be attributed to the concomitant beverage sales. Some guests would opt for high-end dessert wines to accompany their cheeses, such as an aged Château d’Yquem. Instead of having one fixed price for a cheese plate (especially with so many to choose from) the prices were set on a scale, depending on how many cheeses the guest desired, from only one to as many as ten.

A three-fold cheese menu was designed so that the guests could follow along with their cheeses set in a progression on their plates. The menu listed as many as eighty cheeses – the ones that were typically available for the season as well as “special appearance” cheeses – with a space to write in tasting notes. The cheese menu was updated every season as the program evolved and as cheeses would come and go. The cheese menu also served as a marketing tool for the restaurant. Many regulars collected these menus from each visit and some claimed to have a wall full of cheese menus. Guests could return and request cheeses that were favorites from their previous visits.

Some guests wanted to purchase extra cheese to take home with them. The cheeses were still priced the same as if they had had them served in the restaurant. There were times when this placed an extra burden on the Fromager, and sometimes the sheer demand for cheese courses in the bustling restaurant would cause a lag time to receive the presentation. A “dance card” was devised for the cheese trolley wherein the captain would write in the table number waiting for cheese service, with a space to make a notation about whatever wine they might be enjoying – this to give the fromager some guidance in the cheese selection recommended. Terrance noted the demand for purchasing cheese to take home and eventually this led to the inclusion of a retail counter at the second restaurant in the group – Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie. The additional demand for the high-end top quality cheeses put pressure on the small walk-in cheese cave.

Not long after this first cheese cave in a restaurant was up and running, we had a visit from a literary agent – Angela Miller. Terrance said that I would be the guy to write a book on cheese. Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer had been out for a couple of years and since its publication no other books on cheese for the wider market had come out. I worked with Angela on a proposal for a book and within a few months a contract was signed with Clarkson Potter for a book to be entitled The Cheese Plate.

In the meantime, Terrance found a space for a second restaurant on 32nd street off Park Avenue. This new restaurant would be, as its name implies, a cheese-centric restaurant. The Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie would be a little less formal than Picholine, and just a little less expensive, with that retail counter included. Instead of the labor-intensive classical cheese trolley service the guests could simply go up to the cheese counter and confer with the fromagers, or the fromager could come to the table and discuss cheese options with the guests, or the guests could simply refer to a cheese menu.

The Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie opened in early 2001 to wide acclaim. The interior was designed by Adam Tihany to look like a brasserie in Paris, and indeed it did. The restaurant also had more seating than Picholine, quite a bit more – another reason why the cheese trolley service might be problematic. Having learned from the successes as well as the limitations of the Picholine program, it was evident that one well-functioning cheese cave is good but it would be better to have multiple caves, with each set to specific temperatures and humidity levels for different families of cheeses.

As it turned out, we could have made the space one large cheese depot with much larger caves. We had chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, airlines and others coming into the restaurant just for the cheeses. The restaurant itself was busy too, in a neighborhood that seemed a little tired and where the sidewalks seemed to roll up after dusk. With a growing residential population in the area the opening of the restaurant was welcomed with open arms, and the offices above it and surrounding it made Artisanal their preferred dining room. Of course it made no sense to convert this new and popular restaurant into that cheese depot; instead the idea of a cheese “center” was conceived, with much larger and more state-of-the-art cheese maturing caves, as well as a classroom for teaching classes and for hosting private cheese-themed events.

Within a year of the restaurant’s opening The Cheese Plate was published with a book launch party held on premises. The book became a standard introduction to the world of cheese and a best-seller in the category. Picholine continued to be the cheese destination that it had been, but it catered to a more upscale clientele, Lincoln Center fans and the surrounding neighborhood. Having been the first, Picholine became more of a cheese “shrine” whereas the Artisanal Brasserie & Fromagerie became more of a “cathedral.” If it was the cathedral, there needed to be another unit to manage the aging, distribution and the education component. The need for a classroom was indicated by the popularity of cheese classes in the Big Apple. New Yorkers, as well as many out-of-towners, were becoming increasingly curious about cheese, so the need for a classroom was indicated as another revenue stream.

Daphne Zepos was hired to assist me with this little cheese empire. Picholine’s program often required two fromagers to manage its demand, and on busier nights a third person would be required: the lead fromager would make the initial presentation (following the waiting list on the “dance card”) and a second would then receive the order from the presenter, then the third person would deliver the cheese selections to the guests and go over its contents, and suggest suitable wine partners. The brasserie usually had the same number of fromagers: two at lunch, and three during dinner service. Daphne’s hiring helped grow the program at both restaurants, and she would be called upon to assist with the opening of the center.

The space for the center was acquired in 2002, just one year after the opening of the brasserie. It was a raw space on the second floor of an office building, just one block east of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. At the time the space was acquired the neighborhood was still a little derelict and much-deserving of its name – “Hell’s Kitchen.” Architects and refrigeration experts were brought in to get this new center up and running quickly. The center opened it doors May 3rd, 2003, less than nine months after the space was acquired.

The southwest corner of the facility was dedicated to the storage and deliveries, with the five cheese caves along the south wall, each one with its own temperature and humidity. The production area adjoined these caves, and the customer service and sales offices filled out the southeast side of the center. The offices for accounting, web management, marketing and senior management were positioned along the eastern perimeter, with Terrance’s office in the northeast corner. The classroom was placed along the northern side. There had never been anything quite like it in the United States – a “center” with cheese caves, production facilities, offices for the entire company, and a classroom with a working kitchen for demos. Between the hallway and the classroom there was a reception area for classes and events which also doubled as a conference room for the company.

In addition to the architects, refrigeration experts, and our own team of cheese experts, Terrance retained the talents of a Paris “affineur” as a special consultant on the design, construction, and setup of the cheese caves. Terrance took Daphne with him to see the cheese caves at Alléose in Paris, the fromager and affineur he hired as consultant. They observed the working of their caves as well as their retail space. The process of affinage, the proper ripening of cheese, had been a part of the successes of the restaurants’ cheese programs; with the new center opening it became a much bigger concern.

Daphne also assisted in the design of the class curriculum and taught several classes during her tenure with the company. The classroom remained fairly busy with classes and private events over the ten years Artisanal was based at that location. The Master Series was a course that Daphne and I developed for industry professionals and for persons considering entering the world of cheese. Originally the series was offered on six consecutive Wednesdays; later it was consolidated to three in a row. Compressing the series this way made it easier for people from out of town to attend. The Master Series was offered once a quarter and drew in students from other countries as well as from across North America.

Not long after its opening I was given a contract for a second book, one that would be more of an atlas. Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best was published in 2005 and won a James Beard Award for Special Subjects. The cheeses included in that book all came from the caves at Artisanal and all the photographs were taken in the classroom. This book went to the top of the category, surpassing the success of The Cheese Plate. Not long after the second book was published, the publisher suggested a third book to be titled Mastering Cheese. This book was to be based on the contents of the Master Series. The publisher budgeted only three hundred thousand words for this book so I had to add a clause after Mastering Cheese – “Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager.” That book was published in 2009 and became a textbook for the Master Series; it later went on to win Best Cheese Book in the World at Paris’ Gourmand Cookbook Awards.

The company continued to expand into markets outside of New York City, all across the United States, with a few international customers in countries without restrictions on this type of overnight cheese shipping. In the early years this was less problematic – shipping cheeses to international addresses – though the cost of shipping cheeses overseas usually exceeded the cost of the cheese itself. Artisanal supplied airlines with fine cheeses that were served in their first class cabins for Europe-bound flights and in their domestic lounges. One customer in Beijing informed us that this was the only way she was able to acquire some of the outstanding cheeses we offered.

As Artisanal’s sales grew steadily from year to year, it became apparent that it would one day outgrow its Hell’s Kitchen facilities. The first indication of growing pains was noted during the first Christmas season after opening. The production team took over the classroom to help manage the flow. From that first year on the classroom would be closed early each December to help manage the heavy volumes.

After the ten year run in that location, it was evident that a new space would be required to manage the growing business with even better state-of-the-art cheese maturing caves. As of this writing, the new Artisanal Cheese Center is being constructed.

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

That Cheese Was Smoking

10275 Large e1381949180632 That Cheese Was Smoking

So how do you feel about smoked cheeses?

It may sound gimmicky, an idea of how to make a cheese distinctive, or a way to put aroma and flavor back into a cheese that may have been crafted from pasteurized milk. “Smoked cheese” may sound like a new concept yet the practice has been around for many centuries, possibly since the Bronze Age.

One cheese type that has received the smoking step longer than just about any other is the Fiore Sardo, a pressed sheep milk cheese from Sardinia. The name does not indicate “smoked” – instead it translates to “Flower of Sardegna.” A native breed of the island provides the milk for the cheese and traditionally the young cheeses were cured in huts containing wood-burning fireplaces, hence the “smoking.”

Sardinia is an island of weather contrasts: near the coast it is more tropical, while in the central upper elevations it can be much colder. The one-room huts’ WBFP’s would keep the shepherds warm at night and these same rooms would be the ones used for curing the cheeses. The smoking helped dry the cheeses and imparted a subtle smoky flavor deep into their cores. The smoking also helped to keep away pests.

A similar practice was taken up in northern Spain’s Navarre region, where Idiazábal went through the same curing process, and for the same reasons. Which region adopted this first?

My hunch is that this practice occurred in Sardegna before Navarre, and possibly somewhere in the Middle East long before it started in Sardegna. Records on the earliest cheese smoking are scant.

Gimmicky?

Form follows function. The smoking is subtle in each of these internationally protected cheeses; it is not the dominant flavor note. That smoked flavor would likely be more persistent if these cheeses were crafted from compromised milk. Fortunately neither of these cheeses are.

- Max McCalman

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Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

October Fest at Epcot

maxepcot 1 e1381258741746 October Fest at Epcot

Epcot is celebrating its eighteenth annual Food & Wine Festival this year and we are proud to have been a part of this gourmet celebration since 1998. Each year we have presented seminars every weekend, each session highlighting the cheeses and wines of a country: France, Italy, Spain and the United States. A couple of years ago we added a few other themes to the Saturday morning events so that we could include other countries known less for their wines but held in high regard for cheese, such as Switzerland, England, Holland and others. We also wanted to expand the options so that guests would keep coming back for more.

We have long witnessed the growing popularity of cheese and wine in the United States, and more recently, the fast-growing popularity of craft beers. We debated the idea of switching one of the seven Saturday sessions from wine and cheese to beer and cheese. This year we finally made the leap and judging from the way last weekend’s session was received, the craft beer week will be around for quite awhile. And if it was going to be our first beer week, why not make it in October, especially if it’s early October in central Florida, temperatures outside reaching the mid-80’s?

As is often the case, the beers paired very well with all the cheeses. This is usually the case with wines as well but a good beer is almost a “given” when paired with a good cheese.

Why so few mismatches with beer?

There are a couple reasons why beers rarely miss with cheese. Most beers are a little less acid than most wines; this gives beers better pH harmony with cheeses. Cheeses are also a little acid, but not nearly as acid as most wines. Beers also lack the astringency that red wines possess – the tannin factor that can disrupt what might have been a good match with a cheese. Beers also have their effervescence that refreshes the palate when cheese is in the mix. Those bubbles lift up the butterfats, swirl them around, and the gentle acidity breaks them down delightfully.

All this is not to discount the “size” consideration, as in the overall flavor profile of a cheese or beer. The lighter flavored cheeses paired better with the lighter beer, while the bigger flavored cheeses paired better with the bigger beer.

Like the CheeseClock™ indicates, the bigger the cheese, the bigger the beer should be.

- Max McCalman

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Monday, October 7th, 2013

Goat Times

california goats e1381176828968 Goat Times

Last night a journalist asked me about the relative digestibility of goat milk cheese: was it true that goat milk cheeses are easier to digest, and if so was it because they contain less lactose?

Love those questions…

Yes and no. Goat milk cheeses may be a little easier to digest but not because they contain less lactose. All the many comparisons among the three major dairy animals’ milks average out to the conclusion that goat milk has just a little less lactose than cow or sheep. The averages I see for cow and sheep milks are around 4.8% of total weight, with goat milks averaging about 4.5%. However this is the milk, and not the cheese. The lactose is what ferments in the production of cheese. The cultures added at the beginning of cheesemaking is what starts the fermentation process, the digestion of the lactose by lactic acid bacteria, so named because of the by-product of the fermentation, lactic acid. In this first step of cheesemaking (which in many ways overlaps with other steps of the process) much of the lactose is lost. When the whey is drained off, most of the remaining lactose goes with it. This leaves a lactose-reduced curd from which most all cheeses are made. This fermentation process continues at a slow pace until the cheese, no matter the species, becomes virtually lactose-free. As for the relative digestibility of goat milk, we cannot credit the lactose factor. A goat milk cheese could actually have more lactose than a cheese made from the milk of cow or sheep.

If it is not the lactose, what is it that might make goat milk cheeses easier on the tummy than the others?

The strongest case for goat milk cheese digestibility is the relative size of the fat globules. Fat globules in goat milk are smaller than cow, about the same size as sheep. A smaller fat globule will cross the stomach lining more easily than a larger one. The stomach has to work a little harder to break down a bigger globule. Yet this is also relative and dependent upon other factors. As fats metabolize the size of the globule is less important. The metabolism of fats starts at the beginning of the cheesemaking process, making them easier to digest – one reason why an aged cheese may be easier on the tummy than a younger one. Different breeds of goat will have different sized globules too. This does not mean that goat milk cheeses are necessarily less fattening. The fat globules in goat milk may be smaller than cow milk but there are more of them.

Another point of digestibility is something that may be quite different from what occurs in the stomach but after the milk is broken down and absorbed into the blood stream, or in some cases, even before the milk makes it way into the stomach. This would be an issue of tolerance, not lactose intolerance, but tolerance of certain caseins – the proteins found in dairy animals’ milk. This intolerance of certain proteins (found mostly in new cow breeds) is sometimes called cow milk allergy, or CMA.

Goat milk cheeses have a lot going for them anyway, regardless of the relative ease of digestion and tolerance. Goat milk cheeses have many fans. As a group they are similar to sheep in some ways but quite different in others. The milks of both of these small ruminants have relatively higher amounts of short chain fatty acids, beneficial in some ways but their “animal” aromatics problematic for some people. One consideration on behalf of goat milk, as well as sheep, as well as another species’ milk, is the relative amounts of nutrients in the different milks. For example, a sheep milk cheese may have a little more vitamin B2, while a similarly made cow milk cheese may have more folic acid – a good argument for including a variety of cheese types in your week.

There are many styles of goat milk cheeses available today; it’s not just fresh chèvre in a plastic wrap. If this is the only goat milk cheese a goat-cheese abhorrer has ever experienced, then it is understandable that they may avoid them.

I will be a judge at the American Dairy Goat Association competition October 15th & 16th, this year in North Carolina. Last time I helped in the ADGA judging I got to sample over 200 goat cheeses in two days! Yum!

You might say: I’ll get my goat.

- Max McCalman

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Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Silver Linings

USCapitolbw e1380833348413 Silver Linings

A friend just forwarded me a report from the Department of Health and Human Services regarding contingency staffing plans during the federal government shutdown. He was able draw a sliver of positive news from the report.

The report states that more half of the HHS staff will be furloughed, from departments that are deemed to be less important, such as the department which funds the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities. This is obviously not the positive news that he gleaned from the report; instead it brings into focus some of the good things the federal government does on behalf of its citizenry, the most vulnerable included.

If there were ever a department whose value to our general population’s vulnerabilities I questioned, it was the department that conducted random inspections of cheese importers. That is not to say that problems do not arise from time to time but with cheese those problems are scant compared to the problems with other foods. Previous to this week’s government meltdown, with already limited resources, I thought the FDA spent a little too much time and effort looking for something that was not really a problem, like a cheese mite on a Mimolette. Please!

By the way, no one has ever been hospitalized from the consumption of cheese mites.

If that was all those guys had to worry about then I want my tax dollars spent elsewhere, as on the other agencies cited above. Among the departments that will be furloughed the memo included this statement:

FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.

When I think of the random FDA inspections we have experienced over the years, I know that our cheeses have been evaluated, sometimes hundreds of pounds quarantined until well after their sell-by dates, then to be determined as “safe.” I recall one instance just a couple years ago when a shipment of high moisture cheese was held up nearly a month before it was released so that we could sell it. The cheese came back “clean” and safe for consumption. The cheese may have been safe when it was quarantined but by the time we were able to sell it, it was over-the-hill. I recall that the cheese was still edible but it was past its sell-by date, and the cheese looked like it had not enjoyed a pleasant sojourn during its examinations.

I got along well with every FDA inspector I ever met and I hope their furloughs are brief, but then again, maybe some prioritization of tasks may be in order.

- Max McCalman

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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Last, But Not Least

10589 Last, But Not Least

Zamorano holds the distinction of being the last cheese in our inventory’s alphabet, for what that may be worth. A name that begins with “z” can be lost, as in a large graduation ceremony. Some cheeses are worth the wait, and Zamorano is certainly one of those. I have had a special fondness for this cheese ever since I first tasted it back in the mid-nineties. From my description in Cheese, a Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best: “This is a noble, ancient, and majestic cheese…a good Zamorano [which is exactly what we have in our caves right now] has the same dignified bearing as Beaufort or Parmesan.”

Zamorano is at its peak this time of year, and will remain so for the next few months. The ones we have now have had sufficient aging but not too much. Even with the extra aging it is still a marvelous cheese, so long as it is one crafted from uncompromised milk. The Zamorano fits into Autumn very nicely, not only because it is at peak but also because it pairs so well with the wines of the season: red Burgundies and American Pinot Noirs, Ribera del Dueros, Alsatian Rieslings, Periquitas, Moulin-à-Vents, as well as Oloroso. Zamorano also pairs well with lighter white wines such as: Albariños and Pouilly-Fumés. Having recently noted how well a similarly-made cheese (Roncal) paired with hard ciders, you can expect there will be some synergies there as well.

Zamorano needs no wine partner; this cheese holds up just fine on its own. I recall thinking how “proud” it was. Please excuse the anthropomorphosis here but the recollection was of a time when another cheese had fallen over onto a wedge of Zamorano. A colleague asked if this might be a problem – that the cheeses were touching. This became a line I would share with my fellow fromagers: the cheeses are touching. I informed the concerned colleague that the Zamorano was “proud” and did not particularly care if another cheese needed its support.

I gave Zamorano a score of “90” in Cheese, a Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best – not sure what I was thinking. Maybe it was because it was the last cheese in the book, kind of like being at the end of a graduation ceremony.

- Max McCalman

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